Discerning when we are hearing from God and when we aren’t (i.e. when we’re making it up ourselves or when it is actually Satan is speaking to us) is one of the central dilemmas that has brought my faith crashing down.
I was in a Bible study a year or two ago where we were discussing God’s leading, and the process of discernment therein. I think I was probably that annoying person in the group who raises the questions that people don’t really want to talk about in the middle of a study on I John. But I dove in anyway: “But how do you really know it’s God speaking to you? Is it a warm, fuzzy feeling? Is it a sense of peace about something that you haven’t had up until that moment? Do you know it’s God if it’s a leading to do kind, loving things? Can it be God if it’s a leading to do bad things – like kill your kids?”
One of the women in my Bible study said, flat out, that if God told her to kill someone, she would do it. It would be wrong to hold that person as more important than God, to make an idol out of that person or their right to life over God’s commandment to end their life. Like Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac, we have to be willing to follow God wherever he leads, even if it is unpopular, illegal or even (to our limited, mortal eyes) immoral.
Which threw the rest of us in a frenzy: Whoa! Jesus is about love and forgiveness, not murder. How would you be sure it’s God telling you to do that? What about all the wackos out there who have murdered in the name of God? Do you believe God actually told them to do that?
In my memory, this woman’s response was something less than satisfying – she was reluctant to condemn their actions, shrugging and saying that it was possible God had in fact spoken to them in that way. In her own case, she would just know if it was from God because she’s been in a close relationship with Jesus for many years and she knows his voice. She didn’t say whether God’s still, small voice would manifest in her as a warm fuzzy feeling, a set of thoughts that keep coming back even after trying to dismiss them, an explicit and audible voice, and/or some set of external signs or coincidences that seem to confirm the individual message. I wondered about that later.
But that day was the start of the end for me in simply accepting, prima facie, that we can discern God’s voice – or that God speaks to us at all. As I noted in an early blog entry, I had a very difficult prayer experience a few years ago in which I was convinced God had led me to pray in a certain direction. (I should note that, like the woman from Bible study, I had been in a close relationship with Jesus for a long time, and I was pretty sure I knew God's voice.) But when it didn’t go as expected, I had to question whether I had really heard God or just made it up. Either way left very troubling implications for how we relate to God, and made me question the much bigger idea of why God speaks so quietly in the first place. Why is this quietness a virtue? Why does he make it so hard to find him, to hear him, to know whether it’s him at all?